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The Classicism of Robert Lowell’s Phaedra Jerome Mazzaro That the first two translations for the stage which Robert Lowell has allowed to be performed should be “classical” works —Racine’s Phaedra (1961) and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (1967)—is not surprising. Much of his effort, as “The Mills of the Kavanaughs” (1951) and Imitations (1961) indicate, is to come to terms with classical form albeit, as Horace Gregory suggests in his Introduction to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1958), it is a classical form bordering on the baroque: “If we think of things classical as being noted for restraint and in proportion, certain scenes in The Metamorphoses may be called less classi­ cal than violently baroque. The very theme of metamorphosis depended on violent and rapid transformations, distortions, if you will, of normal law and action. . . . In all these changes one can almost say that Ovid anticipated the arts of the Italian baroque.”l Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1917) has perhaps defined best for our time the temperament behind the restraint and proportion of this form. He notes that opposed to a Faustian tendency toward the infinite, the classical world saw “a deep need of visible limits and composed accordingly . . . material things.” This need produced a world picture in which infinite space is so actualized that “things visible appear very nearly as realities of a lower order, limited in the presence of the illimitable.”2 One result of this world picture was classical mathematics, and in “Sophocles’ Oedipus” (1955), Bernard Knox shows how Oedipus Rex reflects a “deep need for visible limits” by being built upon a mathematical principle that two cannot equal one. Other critics have described how in the Oresteia Clytemnestra’s rejection of mystery (dream) in Agamemnon prepares the way for her accepting dream in The Libation Bearers and herself turning into dream in the trilogy’s final segment. Much, too, has 87 88 Comparative Drama been written on the gifts which Prometheus gives man in Prometheus Bound and the pride in geography that seems to underscore the Io episode. Indeed, one may view Greek tragedy in terms of a broad system in which the protagonist uses various techniques to challenge the mystery of the universe. The most “traditional” plays demonstrate how inappropriate human ac­ complishment is as a measure of such mystery, and occasionally an Euripidean play will propose that the two are coincidental. But even without an intimate knowledge of such a system or of recent scholarship on the problem of “classical temperament,” Lowell could not have escaped the more popular “battles” be­ tween classic and romantic that had occupied the writings of such critics as T. E. Hulme, Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and T. S. Eliot. Hulme’s posthumous “Romanticism and Classicism” (1924) describes the difference in romantic and classic temperaments in terms that anticipate Spengler: “The romantic, because he thinks man infinite, must be always talking about the infinite. . . . The classical poet never forgets this finiteness, this limit of man. He remembers always that he is mixed up with earth.”3 SainteBeuve ’s What Is a Classic? (1850), on the other hand, sees “a true classic” more generally as any work that “has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step . . . no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself.”4 He cites Goethe to the effect that, opposed to the “health” of a classic, romantic art is “sickly.” In comparison to Sainte-Beuve’s, Eliot’s “What Is a Classic?” (1945) is less therapeutically inclined and enormously restrictive. It sees a classic as occurring only “when a civilization is mature; when a language and a literature are mature,” and as a product of “a mature mind.”5 Eliot’s “What Is a Classic?” goes on to reject all but Vergil as being “classic” in his sense: “The classic must, within its formal limitations, express the maximum possible of the whole range of feeling which represents the character of the people who speak that language.”6 Under such terms, both Hulme and Sainte-Beuve might consider Racine’s Phèdre classical whereas none would consider...


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